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James Howard Kunstler

A simple statement but a nightmarish one: we can no longer expect to have more energy, only remorselessly less energy. An intense chat with author James Howard Kunstler about the chaos that will rattle our society once the energy disaster takes hold.

James Howard Kunstler was born in New York, moved to the Long Island suburbs in 1954, and in 1957 returned to the city, where he spent most of his childhood. He graduated from the State University of New York in Brockport and worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers before becoming a staff writer and editor for Rolling Stone. In 1975, he left that job to write books on full time. He has written four nonfiction books (The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition; Home from Nowhere; The Geography of Nowhere; and The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century) and nine novels, most recently Maggie Darling. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He has lectured at number of universities and appeared before many professional organizations. He is happy to point out that he has no formal training in architecture or the related design fields. He lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The Long Emergency’s subtitle is accurately descriptive of the tome’s subjects, not the least of which is the notion that we have passed the peak of global oil production and reserves and what that augers for our not too distant future. Interestingly, an Aug. 22 New York Times Magazine article by Peter Maass confirms some of the failures Kunstler alludes to in our conversation below. He also comments at his website:

Maass’s article is full of howling omissions and delusions. For one thing, Maass omits any serious reflection of the consequences of a global energy crisis, any specters of geopolitical blowback, or potential problems for America’s non-negotiable easy-motoring way of life. That omission grows out of the delusional assumption that some magical market mechanism will conjure up a menu of just-in-time replacements for the vanishing oil. These are referred to as “alternative technologies,” a term that points to a more fundamental delusion now rampant among the public, namely the mistaken belief that technology and energy are the same thing, that they are interchangeable, that you can substitute one for the other. Out of oil? Get new technology.

Note to public: technology and energy are not the same things, and continuing to think that they are may place our civilization in jeopardy.

The bottom line of the Times Magazine article is that they are still not convinced that global peak oil is for real, or that we necessarily ought to be worried about it, with all that “alternative technology” banging around out there in the innovational ethers of the magical market. They bring a magisterial cluelessness to the issue—while the back pages of the magazine are devoted to hawking the glitziest high-end products of the suburban housing bubble.

Even more troublesome to me is the fact that no major newspapers have deigned to review James Kunstler’s book. Since he is no crank and the book is not rife with crackpot theories that it has not been introduced into the public conversation is, by my thinking, a serious disservice. I contacted a number of book review editors to inquire why this book has not been reviewed. None chose to respond. Go figure.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: No relation to William Kunstler?

James Howard Kunstler: No relation. Whatsoever.

RB: You’re sure?

JHK: As far as I know, and I think that’s pretty good.

RB: I find something almost as interesting as the reaction to your prognosis in The Long Emergency, your view of what the 21st century portends, your assessment of what is going to happen and is happening. Tabling that for the moment, what is it in your biography that has led you to concern yourself with issues of planning and whatever you call a concern with the future?
Kunstler, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JHK: It may be easy for people to misunderstand where I am coming from. I am certainly not a science writer per se. I’m a—really I consider myself a prose artist who went into journalism and then became a novel writer and then returned to journalism. My first eight books were novels, and then I re-embarked on a journalism career. And I wrote several books about the fiasco of suburbia, and where that came from was my experience as young newspaper reporter in the ‘70s and I covered the OPEC oil embargo of 1973—right on the ground, and I watched the people fight on the gas lines while I was waiting on the lines. The whole spectacle made an impression on me, that this was a serious problem and probably a dress rehearsal for a much bigger problem later on. Although at the time I knew nothing about the scientific modeling that has come to be known by the name of its originator, Hubbert’s Peak. It was also obvious to me at the time that suburbia was a tremendous problem—an economic problem, an ecological problem, and a spiritual problem. And that it was connected, obviously, to the energy issue.

RB: Not the culmination or fulfillment of the American dream? [chuckles]

JHK: Suburbia represents a set of tragic choices that we made collectively.

RB: It didn’t just happen?

JHK: Right. Well, I would put it a little differently. Societies tend to be self-organizing. It’s correct to say that the behavior is emergent in the current sense that we understand that term. It’s not necessarily a linear and extrapolative process. Things happen that surprise us. You make a set of decisions and all of a sudden your life works out that way, and the whole nation is all of a sudden suburbanized.

RB: Unforeseen consequences.

JHK: Exactly. Along with something else that is very important, the diminishing returns of technology. And my ass has been whipped by the diminishing returns of technology for the last six days. One thing after another has happened to me. First of all I signed up for the red-eye flight out of L.A. back to the East Coast for Sunday night. Of course when I got to the Los Angeles airport, otherwise known as LAX, I became engaged in a Chinese fire drill that went on for the next 12 hours. Delayed flights, being lied to by the United Airlines employees, when you could find them, because they were hardly there. Missed connections and a whole series of things culminating yesterday when I pulled up to the hotel in Boston. The Lenox Hotel. And the parking valet didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. A non-English speaking parking valet—great idea, right? So I get out of the car and I say, “I am guest in the hotel.”

RB: [laughs]

Small towns in the last 30 years are not what they were. Most of them have become derelict, decrepit shells of places.JHK: “And here are my keys.” He says [imitating an indeterminate foreign accent] “Are you staying overnight?” I said, “This is a hotel and I am guest here and the clear implication is that I will be staying overnight here. Most people don’t check in for the day unless it’s a certain kind of hotel. And I don’t think it’s that kind of hotel.” He didn’t get it.

RB: Why was it necessary to ask you anything?

JHK: Because I was driving a really crummy car.

RB: Oh. Your Toyota truck?

JHK: With 100,000 miles on it. I am not trying to brag about it; I have made it a point not to get sucked into car acquisition for a number of reasons. So he saw me pull up in this decrepit pick up truck to a relatively fancy Boston hotel and he must have drawn the conclusion that I was the equivalent of a motoring wino.

RB: Uh, we were talking about your biography—how you had covered this stuff on the ground and the oil crisis of ‘73 led to your—were they revelations about suburbia?

JHK: It was self-evident once the OPEC oil embargo started that suburbia was a fiasco.

RB: Did you grow up in the suburbs?

JHK: I spent three years of my life in the Long Island suburbs, on the North Shore, in Roslyn between 1954 and 1957. My parents split up in 1957—yeah, we had a Chevy Bel Air and the brand new suburban house and everything in one of the first subdivisions in the North Shore. We moved there in 1954 and my parents split up in 1957, and I moved back to Manhattan with my mom and my dad remained on Long Island in the same housing subdivision with another lady. And I would visit him roughly once a month for the next eight years, until I left for college. So I essentially grew up in Manhattan on the East Side. I went to that grammar school that’s a block a way from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and consorted with the mummies and the armor, and I kept on returning to Long Island periodically.

RB: You never longed to return?

JHK: No, what I wanted to do, especially as I became a teenager, was really move to a small town and date girls who had vowels in their names and go bass fishing and ride motorcycles. But all I really had to do was go to the museums. I had a very solitary childhood because I went to a so-called special New York public school called the High School of Music and Art, and the kids who went to that school lived so far away that they might as well have been in Czechoslovakia. I never saw them after school. So I was a very solitary teenager.

RB: So you had a longing for community?

JHK: Well, I don’t know. Yeah. I didn’t long for it quite that way. I would make a distinction between community and civic amenity. I had plenty of civic amenity in New York City. I had access to all the great public institutions. And when I was a kid most of the museums were free. And the ones that charged, charged very little. It cost a buck and half to get into the Modern.

RB: It’s unusual for a young person to want to live in a small town. Small-town kids can’t wait to get away.

JHK: Yeah, maybe. Of course small towns in the last 30 years are not what they were. Most of them have become derelict, decrepit shells of places.

RB: I live in pleasant small New Hampshire town [Exeter, N.H.].

JHK: Towns that have colleges or prep schools do well because they do supply a certain amount of cultural amenity to a place that otherwise would be devoid of it.

RB: One thing that reoccurs in The Long Emergency is your specific use of the word “project.” When discussing civilization, you talk of it as a project. It seems to me to be an odd choice.

JHK: I think of it in the sense that a lot of what we bring to that “project” is purposeful.

RB: As humans develop in their lives and mature, do they think about the larger palette called civilization as they go about their business?

JHK: Some do and some don’t. Obviously I believe that the universe is hierarchical. I am not an egalitarian leveler. I think that societies are also hierarchical, and obviously some people think more about stuff including cultural issues and social issues and political issues than other people do. Which brings us to an interesting point, which is—what is so disappointing right now is the quality of the thinking that we are getting from the people whose role it is in society to do the thinking. Namely people like the New York Times, our political leaders, our business leaders. The quality of thinking we are getting about where we are at is remarkably poor.

RB: You are defining a specific problem in The Long Emergency. We are on the down side of Hubbert’s oil peak.

JHK: It’s about the global oil predicament. And that predicament is that we are reaching the worldwide oil production peak, top, highest level of production ever and after that we are going to go down a slippery slope of remorseless—

RB: A steep decline?

JHK: We don’t know how steep it’s going to be. The estimate is about three to five percent a year. But it will be a remorseless slope of depletion. And that three to five percent will add up very quickly and we saw in the U.S. what happened [in the 1970s].

RB: Three percent would mean that in about 30 years it’s all gone. [If the estimate is that oil production will decline by three percent of its initial level every year, then yes, in 33 years, it will be at or near zero. But oil production is generally spoken of in relation to the previous year, so it's likely that the estimate is for a decline each year of 3 percent from the previous year; in that case, production will never decline to zero. After 30 years, it will be at approximately 40 percent of its initial value.—eds.]

JHK: Yeah, and people generally misunderstand what the implications are. A lot of people think it’s about running out of oil. It isn’t particularly about running out of oil. It’s about living in an industrial society that can no longer expect to have more energy but only remorselessly less energy.

RB: You talk about fuel as a platform.

JHK: I made that reference in a different context in the book. That was in the discussion of alternative energy. There is a lot of delusional thinking about how we are going to get out of this pickle. In fact, I like to think of it this way. There are two gigantic mental obstructions that’s preventing us from thinking coherently about where we are. One of them I call the Jiminy Cricket syndrome—the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this culture. The other one is the Las Vegas-i-zation of the American mind, which is based on the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing. You combine those two ideas and you get a lot of delusional thinking.

RB: I wouldn’t call that thinking at all. These notions might be, if they obtain, subsumed values. If you asked people, they might affirm those things as their beliefs.

JHK: Yes, but you could also say it translates into forms of behavior, including doing things that bring extremely short-term benefits and a lot of long-term destruction.

RB: Yes, what I am searching for here—I was telling a friend about The Long Emergency and his response was that at our age we wouldn’t have to worry about it, and then he noted, “But you have a kid.” And so that adds a level greater than self-interest. So, there is a need to understand the emotional content of the response—not simply the analysis of the objective conditions. You state there is all this cognitive dissonance and you want to connect it to the Jiminy Cricket and Las Vegas-i-zation and on top of that you want to say that you have an upbeat view of—

JHK: I said I am a cheerful person. And I generally am.

RB: Hard to be cheerful after reading your book.

JHK: Well, I’m sorry. I’ve lived with these ideas for years and years and years. I found a way of, to use your word, subsuming them into my psychological makeup. I’ve lived 56 years—I have outlived Babe Ruth and Mozart already. I’m very grateful to have lived this long. So what ever comes now is gravy.

RB: And Bertrand Russell lived into his ‘90s.

JHK: He was a very fortunate fellow.

RB: Why pick two people whose longevity falls below the average? [laughs]

JHK: Only to make the point that I am grateful to be here at all. It’s like what Keith Richards said when he came back from intermission on the HBO concert, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere.”

RB: Sure.

JHK: I would make the distinction between my analysis of what the American public thinks and what is really happening, dude. Because they are not exactly the same things, you know.

RB: Trying to digest your take, it gets back to whether your biography shaped a point of view that is dystopian or dyspeptic?

JHK: Let me put it this way, Robert. [with emphasis] A lot of people—I go around and I give university lectures. People are in various states of shock, disappointment, chagrin, resentment, disbelief. And some of them rise up in indignation from their seats and say, “You’re so apocalyptic.” And I have to make the point that what I am describing is not apocalypse. What I am describing is a discontinuity. It’s a major discontinuity in social life and economic life and in civilization generally. But it’s not necessarily the end of the world.

RB: It’s troublesome. Asian pirates marauding in the Pacific Northwest and Las Vegas crumbling into the desert.

JHK: I didn’t say that. I said, “drying up and blowing away.”

RB: Right.

JHK: Which is different. In fact, I wrote a chapter about Las Vegas in my previous nonfiction book, The City in Mind, in which I said the excitement in Vegas will be over for everyone but the tarantulas and the gila monsters. But where were we?

RB: Your apocalyptic vision. We are trying to understand how to process your description of this major discontinuity that people view with various degrees of acceptance and incredulity. Again, I was talking about your book, and someone claimed that their boyfriend converts vegetable oil to fuel for their car. I said, “Didn’t it take some energy to get the vegetable oil to its current state?”

JHK: Let’s talk about this [alternative fuels] for a moment. I tell people that no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to continue running the interstate highways and Disney World and Wal-Mart—even a substantial fraction of what we are running in America—the way we are running it. And we will use them but probably at a much smaller scale than most people anticipate. I had a run-in with bio-diesel enthusiasts in Middlebury [Vt.], and they were incensed that I wasn’t as enthusiastic as they were about it. A lot of them were young. I tried to explore their thinking. And I asked, “Has it occurred to you that as our industrial methods of agriculture fade and fail that probably we’ll have to devote more crop land to the production of human food because our crop yields will go down when we stop pouring fertilizers and pesticides and natural gas-based products and oil-based fuels and so forth on the soil? And so we will have to devote more land for growing food for humans?” And it was, “Oh, dude, we, like, didn’t plan on that.”

RB: [laughs]

JHK: And had they considered that we were going to have to use more working animals in the future and we don’t know how many and what percentage—maybe only three percent more, maybe 32 percent more, than we do now? We don’t really know. But whatever it is, they are going to require a lot of acreage devoted to their feed as well. And they said, “Oh, dude, we didn’t figure on that.” So what’s happening is there is a lot of wishful thinking out there. People realize that the oil used for cooking french fries is being thrown out and you can theoretically and, in fact, as a practical matter, you can use it in an internal combustion engine. Can you convert the entire American car and truck fleet to used french fry oil? Or even bio-diesel made from crop plants? The answer is no. As the engineers say, “This stuff doesn’t scale.”

RB: I found your account of your talk at Google headquarters amusing.

JHK: They have a regular and lively lecture series. And they snatch anyone who is coming through town.

RB: You described them as [or my sense of your account is that they were] a bunch of kids who had cashed in on a big opportunity and had utter faith in technology as transformative in the real world.

There are two gigantic mental obstructions that’s preventing us from thinking coherently about where we are. One of them I call the Jiminy Cricket syndrome—the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this culture. The other one is the Las Vegas-i-zation of the American mind, which is based on the idea that it is possible to get something for nothing. You combine those two ideas and you get a lot of delusional thinking.JHK: My point there is that another one of the delusions we are suffering from is the idea that technology is the same as energy. And that technology can replace the energy that we are losing. And it’s dismaying to see that people who are working in the technology sector, as it’s called, believe that technology can replace energy. It’s simply a fallacy. It happens that a lot of these people are young people, in their 20s and 30s. I don’t know if they are naive or what the score is. I rather imagine that there is a certain level of techno-intoxication that you find in Silicon Valley from people who have been very successful moving pixels around on screens. They have developed a kind of grandiosity about what they do, thinking it can solve every problem in the world. In fact, what they have given us is tremendous diminishing returns. My life is now tyrannized by email. You know, the computer did not create more hours in the day. Every company and institution in America has a computerized phone answering machine and after 20 years of that the consequence is that you can’t call anybody in America and get hold of them. So, has it improved communications? It’s made it infinitely worse. In fact, this happened to me yesterday when I came to town: I got into my hotel and as a courtesy I tried to call the Boston Public Library to tell them I was here for the event and not to worry that I would get there. I would meet them.

RB: The hotel is across the street from the library.

JHK: Yes, but I was coming from 200 miles away. I think it’s a courtesy to let people know you are safe and sound so they don’t wring their hands at 5:45 waiting, wondering if you are going to show up. To make a long story short, I called the number and got one computerized menu after another. And the original message was. “You’ve reached the Boston Public Library. We are closed now.” It was 3:15 in the afternoon. I knew good and goddamn well they weren’t closed. And when I hit the key to get a live operator, it booted me back into the main menu telling me they were closed. I asked the hotel concierge to get me a number that actually had a live human being on it and I asked her to connect me to the person I needed to speak to and she booted me back to the computer menu. And this happened three more times until I had to scream at her, “I insist that you have a live human being on the line before you hang up.”

RB: The point of these systems was increased productivity, not necessarily your own. The ideal was that we would all become more productive because we could conduct routine things with greater rapidity.

JHK: Yeah, but guess what? All they really succeeded in doing was offloading all the inconvenience from them to you, the public. Instead of them having to be inconvenienced by having to pay $60,000 in wages and medical benefits to a receptionist, all they did was make the public go through a Chinese fire drill every time they pick up the phone. I don’t think I am the only frustrated person in America. And that’s only one example.

RB: What is a Chinese fire drill? This is the second time you have used that phrase.

JHK: A Chinese fire drill is a stunt that fraternity guys used to do—you pull up to a red light in a car, everybody in the car gets out and runs around the car four times and gets back into the car and drives away. It’s a kind of archetypal purposeless activity. And that’s what America is turning into. I also sometimes like to refer to America as becoming the Bulgaria of the Western Hemisphere.

RB: [laughs] Because?

JHK: We are now so inept at just about everything we do. We can’t run airlines, we can’t run hotels. We can’t answer the phone and connect it to anybody.

RB: You do make a point that people who fear the encroachment of Big Brother also criticize it for its massive inefficiencies.

JHK: My point about that really came from this idea that anything that is operating at the gigantic scale now in our society, government, the large-scale farming model based on the Archer Daniels Midland Cheese Doodle and Pepsi Cola agricultural model, or the Wal-Mart model of commerce or the large centralized high school—any of these gigantic scale things are going to either wither away or fail or not work well under the conditions that we are moving into. Our lives are going to be greatly downscaled and are going to be profoundly local and the larger things in our lives are going to fade away. Including the federal government. My friends back home are all wringing their hands over George Bush becoming the next Adolf Hitler—

RB: Your friends in Saratoga?

JHK: I live in Saratoga Springs, which is a classic Main Street small town.

RB: Where the racetrack is.

JHK: There is a famous old racetrack there that still runs.

RB: And Skidmore College?

JHK: Yes, and it’s got a kind of a mixed economy. There are a couple of other big things there. A large printing plant that puts out regional editions of Newsweek, a bottling company—and anyway, so my friends are all wringing their hands about Bush. I have a couple of thoughts about this—one is that they’ll be lucky if the federal government can answer the phones, based on the way we do that, let alone regulate their lives. I think the political action of the future is going to tend to be more local and regional, and it could get pretty despotic. The federal government isn’t going to be able to handle that.

RB: The rest of the world hasn’t made the same leap to gigantism as the U.S. has, that the scale of life in the rest of the world, even in large countries, isn’t like that of the U.S.?

JHK: Let’s look at the Europeans, since they are most closely related to us culturally. They developed their oil industry around the same time. But their sources were very far away. British Petroleum got their oil from Iran, and Shell got its oil from Indonesia and the Rothschilds developed their oil [holdings] around the Baku region of Central Asia. Their sources of oil were far away. In the U.S. in the 1920s, we had a far different situation. We produced all of our oil right on the spot. We could get it easily and transport it easily and it was cheap and we had a lot of it. And so after the interruption of World War I, you get the 1920s and the whole boom period is really based on the first phase of car-centered suburbia—so you get this tremendous suburban juggernaut under way in the U.S. and it maxes out in 1929. It was the source of the ‘20s boom, building all the new suburban houses. Retrofitting the cities for cars, selling all the cars, selling all the steel, the cement, and all that stuff. Selling all the toasters and furnishings for all the new houses. A tremendous expansion including what has been the consequences of tremendous rate of immigration.

RB: We didn’t create the interstate highway system until much later.

JHK: That’s not what I am talking about. The first phase of automobile suburbanization occurred without the interstate highway system. And then came the interruption of the Great Depression and the Second World War. There are many ways of describing the Depression and one of them was that we had maxed out and saturated our capacity to carry on the suburban expansion. Everybody who could get in on it, did, and it was over. And we couldn’t sell cars to the Chinese, because they were living in the equivalent of the 12th century, and Europe was not going to be suburbanized because—

RB: Let me interrupt you—I thought the Great Depression was a failure of our banking system in addition to a huge agricultural crisis?

Suburbia is no longer country living—it’s a cartoon of country living, and a cartoon of the country, in a cartoon of a country house. And because of that it lends itself to ridicule even on the part of the people who live in it.JHK: I would put it differently. The agricultural crisis was perhaps not what you are thinking of. The dust bowl was a sub-crisis. The main agricultural crisis was really a result of overproduction and crashing prices largely because of the mechanization of the farm and the introduction of the tractor and once you get that you get tremendous overproduction—in the 1920s, when the Europeans recovered from the war, their agricultural markets were lost to us, not completely but the demand from Europe declined in the ‘20s and the American farmers were producing tremendous amounts of grain and they went into a depression in the mid ‘20s that preceded the greater economic depression, which then became a matter of saturated markets and then the failure of not just the banking system but of the expectation that the industrial economy could continue to grow. As Franklin Roosevelt put it, what you saw in the Great Depression was this paradox of “want amidst plenty,” as he put it. We had plenty of oil, mineral resources, manpower, and good farmland despite the dust bowl—the dust bowl did not encompass all the farm lands of the United States. And we had all those things, and yet we had a failure of capital and the ability to raise money and raise investment and keep on producing stuff. Remember we had scaled up our factory systems to such a gigantic degree in a very short period of time, in 20 years—

RB: There is an argument to be made that World War II saved us economically.

JHK: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. What probably happened is that virtually the rest of the industrialized world either was destroyed, bankrupted, or exhausted by World War II, and by the time it was over we were the only people left standing with our equipment intact.

RB: And what pulled us out of the Great Depression?

JHK: The fact that after the Second World War we could make anything we wanted and sell it to people all over the world and lend them the money to buy it.

RB: We were able to product armaments, which took up the slack in our production output circa ‘38, ‘39—there was another depression in ‘38.

JHK: That’s not what I’ve said. The point I have made in my book is that we had been in a deep industrial depression and the necessity of war production got us to produce things again but we were not producing the same things as before. Instead of cars we were producing tanks and airplanes. Why? Because we had to.

RB: And starting employing people. Giving them incomes, giving them—

JHK: That’s quite true. And also sending millions of men in the prime of their lives into the Army and a lot of them died there. When we came out of the Second World War there was tremendous and pervasive anxiety that we would slip back into the depression and, in fact, to some degree we actually did in the late ‘40s. And we had to create mechanisms to allow us to move on. We realized that the rest of the industrialized world was on the ropes. The victors in Europe in World War II were not that much better off economically than Germany, the big loser. France and England were in bad shape after the war. They had suffered a certain amount of physical destruction but they also had suffered tremendous economic losses that took them decades to overcome. You ask why France and England didn’t suburbanize or begin that process, anyway, for decades after we did? They had to borrow money from us just to keep their societies on life support into the 1960s.

RB: So you don’t think there is a cultural difference of social organization that prevents Europe from opting for the urban suburban model?

JHK: There are many reasons why the Europeans did what they did, and we did what we did because we were able to. We had an historic antipathy to the industrial city and almost of our cities were in one way or another industrial. We had no experience with any other kind of city, and the perceived remedy for that was going to be country living for everybody. That’s what suburbia was all about. Unfortunately—

RB: I am also trying to—

JHK: Robert, you’re getting ahead of yourself here. Let me step back, OK. You ask why Europeans didn’t suburbanize? I began by trying to say that they simply didn’t have access to oil the same way we did. And we did all the suburbanizing in the 1920s—began this tremendous project. They didn’t. They were recovering form the First World War, which was tremendous disruption.

RB: You are arguing it was mostly a matter of wherewithal.

JHK: No, wait a minute. Hold on a second. So the 1930s were a time of exhaustion and recovery for the Europeans, and all of the sudden they find themselves in World War II. After World War II, they are completely exhausted and bankrupt or blown up. And so they are not going to start suburbanizing. It isn’t until the 1970s they even begin the first feeble attempts at that. There are other things at work there. They had different land tenure traditions in Europe. America had more undeveloped land around the cities.

RB: We also had more mobility.

JHK: And that had to do also with the historical development of industrial society in the 20th century. We had, for example, this huge, vast agricultural region in the South where people were living in the equivalent of serfdom in the 20th century. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia—even the people who weren’t serfs, poor peasants—these were huge states, you could fit 23 copies of Massachusetts into Alabama. They had vast distances between places, and the car came along and it really liberated them from the tyranny of geography. And once the Depression and Second World War are over and we reconsolidate our position in the world, you get this tremendous suburban development of the southern U.S., and that’s where all the action has been over the last 30 years. This tremendous movement of capital and people and jobs to places like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, and that has become the embodiment of what late florid suburbanization is about. Although you see it all over the United States, too.

RB: OK, this country doesn’t seem, to me, to have a tradition of social urbanization and organization that obtains in Europe. Perhaps a fugal forward movement, improvisational or emergent—

JHK: Uh huh—

RB: What I am trying to get at is, even if they could have done what was done in the U.S. in the first phase of suburbanization, would they have?

JHK: They had different land ownership principles and traditions.

RB: And perhaps a different sense of civilization and human intercourse.

JHK: A lot of it has to do with this idea that in America suburbia is a response to the horror of the industrial city. And the discomfort of the industrial city. You don’t get it quite the same way in Europe. First of all, there is no medieval Cleveland. There was no Renaissance Baltimore. In Europe, you get these centuries and millennial overlays of civic organization and civic experience. And they did not reject the urban experience the way Americans did. Their cities were not strictly industrial cities. And in fact if you look at a city like Paris, which I have written about in The City in Mind, they went through a great urban convulsion of renovation in the 1850s and ‘60s under Napoleon III—

RB: That’s the crazy Napoleon?

JHK: He was Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the first Napoleon, and he came to power about 1850 though a sort of democratic process. He was essentially elected and made emperor by a country that—let’s not digress into the trivia of the politics of France of 1850—anyway, Louis Napoleon, otherwise known as Napoleon III, undertook this great renovation job in Paris and got the prefect of Paris, George Hausmann, to carry it out, and the result of it was the great City of Light we know today—the core of Paris that is generally considered to be the paragon of urban life and has been for 100 years and continues to be a place that everybody respects and honors and values and understands to be the epitome of what is good in city life. The animating spirit behind that—the idea that city life has value, that city life provides tremendous amenity—is present everywhere in Europe. You find it in London, in Lisbon, in Barcelona; even the German cities that were destroyed got it back. They did not lose the idea that city life has value and the city itself can be a wonderful thing. That’s not the case in America. Most people here disdain everything about the city from its physical form to the behavior you find in it.

RB: Really? New Yorkers seem to be an exception. Also Chicagoans.

JHK: Yes, there are exceptions. And there are places that are valued. Certainly Boston, where we are sitting today, in the Back Bay of Boston, retains that quality of a valued urban life. They’re the exceptions and they are great exceptions. If you go to Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore—the list is very long. Even the small ones, Akron, Des Moines, Dayton—you will find an urban America that is completely cored. There is nothing left in these places. The surrender is complete. For the most part what you see in America is city life that is not valued and the idea that country living is going to be an antidote to city life. Now, what happens in America is very unfortunate because after the 1960s suburbia is no longer what it originally advertised itself to be. This is, of course, one of the great agonies of our time. Suburbia is no longer country living—it’s a cartoon of country living, and a cartoon of the country, in a cartoon of a country house. And because of that it lends itself to ridicule even on the part of the people who live in it. One final thing, I’m sorry to be overbearing here—

RB: [laughs]

JHK: Three things happened between America and Europe that were very different. The Europeans did not destroy what was left of their cities in the decades following the Second World War. We destroyed ours. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. And the Europeans did not destroy the local agriculture around their towns and cities or the value-added activities associated with it. So I consider them to be in a somewhat better position to confront the disorders and discontinuities ahead of them then we are. People are still going to be able to get to work in Barcelona and Lisbon. People in Atlanta and in Silicon Valley will not be able to get to work. People in Los Angeles will not be able to feed themselves. People in Atlanta may not be able to feed themselves. People living around Paris will get food.

RB: Are there signs? There is a trend of people moving back into cities, of people appreciating boutique farming and produce—none of this is on a grand scale but there is some recognition that there is value here. Might this be the beginning of a movement to take on the consequences of oil depletion?
Kunstler, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JHK: The deformities and miseries of suburban life are now so obvious to younger generations that many of them have clearly decided that they need a different way of life. Those are many of the people who are moving back into the condo lofts and some of the rehabilitated neighborhoods of some of the cities. There’s nothing mysterious about it. If I grew up in some miserable suburb in some miserable place like Arlington, Texas, or the asteroid belts of Los Angeles, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that either. Where agriculture is concerned, you can see very clearly in a place like upstate New York, where I live, what is happening. That indeed a new kind of agriculture is slowly coming around. We see dairy farming collapsing in upstate New York. It’s been in a protracted state of senility for 30 years, and it’s funny, a lot of people think that dairy farming is the only thing that ever happened up there. In fact, that was a kind of industrial activity in and of itself. It came about really only because of [rural] electrification, bulk refrigeration, and the electric milking machine along with Mr. Billings’s development of the Holstein cow. But we had a much more mixed agriculture before 1900, and the people who live in my part of the country are generally not aware of that. We are getting back now a much more mixed agriculture. You have young people buying some of these derelict farms and raising lambs or producing market greens and quite a diverse range of crops. We are going to see a lot more of that. One of the things we are facing in the future is going to be a restoration of the distinction between what is urban and what is rural—between town and country. And that is exactly what was destroyed by suburbia. Which was a mish mash of the whole thing. The animating idea—one of the animating ideas in suburbia is that you can lead an urban life in a rural setting. In the future that will be increasingly impossible. If you decide to live in a rural place, you are probably going to have to follow rural occupations and ways of life. That does call into question what will happen with the urban part. I hold that our larger cities are going to contract, probably painfully. There will probably be a movement back to re-densifying the core at the same time that the asteroid belts of post-war crap lose value and dissolve.

RB: The cores these days are skyscrapers.

JHK: When I say the core I don’t necessarily mean the downtown business districts. Those parts are going to be very, very problematical, and that’s another important point you have made. The places that are overburdened with mega-structures, whether they are skyscrapers or even just large buildings, are going to be in real trouble. These are experimental building types that have only been with us for 100 years. I’m even talking about 10-story pre-war apartment buildings. I don’t know if we can run them in the energy-scarce economy that we are going to have in the future. And it raises one really interesting question like the question of—take this for example—modern plumbing as we know it, where every apartment has a bathroom, a toilet, etc., is totally dependent on central heating, good and dependable central heating. You can’t be running space heaters in a 10-story Manhattan apartment building. If one-third of the building or one-eighth of the building isn’t warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing, the whole building is going to lose its plumbing and then the building is going to become dysfunctional and we don’t know if this is going to happen or not. And it could. Because the natural gas situation in America—which is how we heat most of our buildings now—is arguably more ominous than the oil situation.

RB: Your description of the aspects of what you call the long emergency is compelling when you went to California and addressed a group of urbanism—

JHK: There is a group called the Congress of New Urbanism.

RB: What is new urbanism?

JHK: The new urbanist movement came out of the 1970s, a lot of young architects and planners and urban designers who had been working in response to the oil embargoes of the ‘70s, working on solar housing and stuff like that. They realized that it wasn’t just the houses that were a problem, it was the arrangement and organization of them in the landscape and what we really had to do was get back to creating walkable communities. And so they have been the main organization behind the reform of our suburban development practices. They coalesced into an official formal organization called the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993, led by figures like Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Douglas Kelbaugh, now the dean of the University of Michigan’s architecture school, and other people formed this organization and I had been active in it—

RB: Because you are a new urbanist?

JHK: I am. I am a card-carrying new urbanist who signed the charter in Charleston and pays his dues every year. It’s going to be terribly important if we are going to have a different kind of social arrangement in America in terms of how we live and where we live—and we are going to have that—it is very important for us to retrieve that lost body of culture and principle and methodology and skill for how to arrange the human habitat on the landscape. We threw all that knowledge in the dumpster in 1960 and decided from that point on we would only use traffic engineering and statistical analysis to produce our everyday environment, and the result is there for everybody to see—miserable suburban strip malls and the power centers and subdivisions and all the crap that we have smeared across the landscape.

RB: Who could argue with that description, but aren’t there glimmers of hope that we haven’t totally thrown it away? At some point in the mid ‘70s I was in Galena, Ill., [birthplace of U.S. Grant], small town, perhaps Nowheresville. But the town fathers figured out that if it was restored to its 19th-century feel, it would be a tourist attraction, and now it’s a pleasant little town and so forth. So the idea of a return to small town lifestyle wasn’t totally lost. And I suspect there are other towns like that around the country.

JHK: There is no question that historic preservation movement has been very important, but the percentage of restored places to the suburban—

RB: I’m responding to your claim that the knowledge has been lost.

JHK: The knowledge for replicating. Let me make these two points. The percentage of restoration has been relatively tiny compared to the creation of horrendous new crap everywhere, and most American towns have been literally destroyed. Only a tiny percentage of them, including the one I live in, have been restored to some extent. Our ability to create new urban fabric of quality and character has been very poor, and even a lot of the new stuff we build doesn’t come up to the ankles of the people who did it in 1911. We are finally getting back a much better sense of urban design, thanks to the new urbanists. Which is to say, the attitude of the building toward the street, the relations of the buildings to each other and the public realm, the ability to create mixed activities rather than monocultures. We have improved in that but in the design of the buildings themselves we are really in trouble. A lot of it has to do with our codes. The handicap codes in America, for instance, essentially mandate that developers can only put up one-story buildings, because the requirement for elevators and ramps and all kinds of things are now so onerous that people confronted with the opportunity to put up a new urban building are very reluctant to do it or have to make heroic expenditures in order to come out half as good as the stuff they are trying to fit in with. So we have a lot of problems. It’s my belief that as we enter this period of disorder and travail and hardship and economic trouble, that among other things we will probably begin to ignore are a lot of the codes and regulations that we cooked up in the late 20th century because we won’t be able to afford to follow them. People are really going to have to improvise their way through this including rebuilding America on something more than a single-story basis and something less than a ten-story basis.

RB: You suggested that political organization would become more despotic, that many of our concerns and amenities will be trashed based on the necessities imposed by what you suggest.

JHK: My reference earlier was to politics. We are liable to see more despotic politics on the local level because there is going to be a desperate need for authority and people may turn to not the nicest characters. We will have to make certain expeditious decisions about things, like whether we prevent someone from building a three-story house without an elevator because can’t afford to do that anymore. And yet our laws stipulate that we have to have elevators in virtually every building. I am not against keeping handicapped people from getting around. I am saying it has been a luxury of this tremendously affluent period of our history, that we have been able to mandate that. Nothing lasts forever and that is one of the things—and that’s not the only issue in how we rebuild some kind of urban America. I happen to believe, by the way, there is going to be a lot more action in the smaller towns and cities than in the big cities. The big cities will contract in scale and probably in population. All of our cities occupy important sites and there are reasons for them to be there, whether they are river towns or harbor towns, and they are not going to go away.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum